I didn’t come from a particularly religious family (in fact, you could say the opposite). But I grew up in the heart of the Bible belt, so I felt — particularly during junior high school — all the societal pressures of Christianity. Outside of my family, everyone I knew attended church, and I often felt alienated by my lack of faith. So I decided, for lack of a better way to fit in, that I’d, too, become religious. I would devoted myself to Christ. I would familiarize myself with Jesus and his teachings, and if the hold never took, I’d at the very least fake it.
I met with a youth pastor at a popular church in town, the church were my girlfriend and many of my classmates attended. Rick was his name — he was the cool kids’ youth pastor. He was young, and spent much of his time hanging out with the popular students in my school, doing whatever it is that youth pastors do. I spoke to him one Sunday after church, briefly, and explained to him that I was ready to devote myself to God. Get saved. Hand over my brain. We set up an appointment for him to come by my house the following week and begin the process of “allowing Jesus into my heart.”
On the scheduled day, I watched out my window, and waited for him to arrive. Fifteen minutes past the appointed time, I saw him slow up near my house, look up into my yard, and then quickly drive off. It turned out that Rick, though he was in his early 20s, was no different than everyone else in junior high: Obsessed with status and popularity. He saw the dump I lived in; that it was located in the worst part of town; and he skedaddled, fearing — I can only assume — that the cockroaches would attack him during our meeting.
I returned to that church the following Sunday. in deference to my girlfriend. But after the service, an older minister took me aside and asked if I wore an earring because I was rebelling against my parents. I told him my father also wore an earring. He asked me not to return to the church again.
It was then that I officially gave up on Christianity and religion. Perhaps unfairly, I would forever associate Jesus with that moment — in my mind, religion had become inextricably linked with the same contingent of people in my junior high who would’ve ostracized me if I’d ever revealed where I lived to them. Even God was a status competition, and I had not warranted admission into the upper circle.
My dalliance with religion essentially began and ended that week. But Carlene Bauer — the author of Not that Kind of Girl — wrestled with her faith most of her life. Not that Kind of Girl is an unusual memoir: Unlike a lot of books that track a person’s path toward faith, Not that Kind of Girl is about a woman’s loss of it. About the way she — instead of pushing doubts aside — would eventually embrace them.
Bauer grew up in an evangelical Christian family in southern New Jersey. She spent much of her early youth in private religious schools, only to wind up at a public high school, forced to deal with peers who were opting out of religion in favor of goth phases and parties. In college, while most everyone else — including her younger sister — was going out, getting drunk, and getting laid, Bauer immersed herself into literature, into class, and struggled to square both her education and her friends’ ideas of religion with her own. At her Baltimore college, she remained steadfast. Despite a series of boyfriends, she refused to have sex, breaking off most of her relationships before they got to that point. It’s difficult to say, however, whether religious was the motivating factor behind her decision to remain chaste, if it was a convenient excuse for a burgeoning feminist with issues with men, or if she was simply uncomfortable with the idea of sex.
It wasn’t until she moved to New York City and began her career in publishing, however, before she really began living her life. While Bauer remained a virgin well into her 20s, she slowly began to embrace life. Her relationship with God faded away, and parties, alcohol, relationships and eventually sex began to take its place.
Not that Kind of Girl feels less like a memoir and more like an extended, well-thought out late-night conversation— a series of anecdotes shared while lying in bed with a new partner, recounting your life. As she described it herself, “they weren’t stories,” so much as they were “a pile of false starts.” Men would come into her life, and just as soon as we, the reader, had gotten attached to them, they’d exit stage left and another would come along.
It doesn’t detract anything from the memoir, however, because her dealings with men — and most people, in general — are tied together thematically by her faith and the growing lack thereof. It’s a fascinating journey relatable for many — watching as Bauer attempts to reconcile her religious upbringing with her growing love of pop culture, and her increasingly liberal leanings. She never attempts, however, to take the easy way out — to cast aside her faith as incompatible. She thinks and over-thinks it, backing up her reason with references to Sylvia Plath, the Smiths, R.E.M., and Simone de Beauvoir.
I’m not particular accustomed to this type of memoir — I’m used to reading about the lives of people dealing with stints in rehab, the death of parents, sexual abuse, or racial and gender-identity obstacles, replete with harrowing or hilarious tales of woe. Not that Kind of Girl is a far more introspective memoir: A clever and engrossing look inside the sharp and spinning mind of Carlene Bauer. She eschews melodrama and histrionics in favor of extended self-reflection, and manages to do so without coming off as a solipsist. She’s wry and amusing, but never self-deprecating.
In giving up her religion, Bauer also comes to terms with the notion that romance is not always storybook, nor does it need to be. And I don’t want to reveal too much about how Not that Kind of Girl ends, but I do know this: She’s currently dating a frequent contributor to this site, and the publisher of The Second Pass, John Williams. My guess, after reading her intellectually stunning and thought-provoking memoir, is that it’s a rewarding, if not exceedingly challenging, relationship.